Electronics stores discover women, again.

I love it when a major consumer products category stands up and declares that fully half the population is an important part of the customer base. In the case of consumer electronics, every year or so we get an industry initiative that claims to focus on women, as though women just figured out that TVs and iPods are fun.

Earlier this week, the electronics industry hosted a forum in New York to showcase new products, announced the launch of two women-focused initiatives, and hosted a panel discussion about buying habits. There were press releases and fanfare surrounding the launch of a new professional organization called the Women in CE, the unveiling of new Website and blog called Techlicious, and just prior to the expansion of Best Buy's efforts to better understand and embrace the fairer sex.

Full disclosure: I was personally involved in this effort in the early 2000's. After years of covering the electronics and home entertainment industry and hearing that every new product or retail initiative was aimed at men (usually between the ages of 18 and 35), I started badgering the Consumer Electronics Association for research to prove otherwise. We now know that women account for nearly $90 billion in electronics sales. Or at least they did in 2004, since the industry hasn't seen fit to update the research much. Apparently one good study about half the buying public is enough, but that's another gripe altogether.

The assumption that women don't buy or use technology is still astonishingly prevalent. Who really believes women don't use cell phones or computers? That they don't watch DVDs or TV? I once countered the statement "women don't buy TVs" with, "No, we just have them in our hope chest." Come on.

I always admired Best Buy for its initiatives in marketing to women. Back when there was direct competition between Best Buy and Circuit City, female shoppers often preferred Best Buy. Because, as CEO Brad Anderson explained it, Best Buy didn't suck at selling to women as much as the other guys. That was not the way to really serve your customer base, so Best Buy embarked on plan much more ambitious -- to define various customer segments within the gender, identify which store served those segments and implement changes in merchandise or service that better suited each group.

Stores with large numbers of young families got play areas and shopping assistants. Those with older populations had programs to better assist in digital imaging and computer purchases. Single city gals had more personal digital devices to choose from, and the Geek Squad got a female friendly face -- the guy in the tie was joined by a gal. These female groups got names, Jill, Helen and Carrie, and a lot of attention, both positive and negative, in the national press.

Today, Best Buy has toned down its approach in a way that seems to make a lot more sense. Instead of publicly declaring to women everywhere "We Want You," the company has been tapping into the knowledge, experience and ambition of its own female employees, and this program -- dubbed WOLF@Best Buy -- is starting to yield results.

Wolf stands for Women's Leadership Forum (the "o" is just for effect), and launched in 2007 as an internal initiative at Best Buy's corporate headquarters in Minneapolis. It quickly spread to the store network and Wolf Packs formed in various markets across the country. Essentially think tanks, these groups are leveraging the collective experience and ideas from Best Buy's female employees. The ones on the front lines dealing with customers and seeing policy through a different set of eyes.

"It's core to everything we do right now, We've started looking at how women are using technology, at the experience, at the ones who love it or hate it," says Liz Haesler, Vice President of Home Life and Trend at Best Buy. "There are so many ways in which we can connect with (women) and meet unmet needs."

These groups are literally creating new store formats, including some in Minneapolis and Colorado. Stores based on input from the packs carry different merchandise than a typical Best Buy store or new fixturing.

And a larger, more empowered female workforce can have a trickle-down effect. Retail experiences are wholly dictated by the people in charge. Indifferent or disorganized leadership creates that same atmosphere in the store. Wal-Mart's down-home attitude came directly from its founder, Sam Walton, and the greeter and smiley face culture is now so deeply ingrained in the company that customers could sense any variation, however slight. Having more women employed at Best Buy at every level should help it to better relate to its female customers. Or at the very least, be better to its female employees.
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